Sunday, December 30, 2007

That's a' that then

2007. Another year over, a new one almost begun. Here's my last post of the year before i head off on my parent-with-child-friendly NYE break, I have some unfinished business to take care of.

When I say unfinished business, I mean exactly that. After struggling last year to whittle down my favourite songs into a top 20, I thought I’d expand it this year to a top 30. Was that any easier? Of course not. I really don’t have the time or inclination to work on this any more, so I present you with an unsorted list of 32 tracks from 2007 that did it for me in different ways. Even though I’ve deliberately avoided a specific singles list, most of them are. The absence of tracks from many of my albums of the year is largely due to my inability to select a particular stand-out from what were wholly excellent records. And oddly, there’s a lot more British representation here than in my very American-centric top 20 long-players. For what it’s worth here they are (sans mp3s, sorry):

Emmy The Great – The Easter Parade
Loney Dear – Saturday Waits
Slow Club – Sunday
LCD Soundsystem – Freak Out / Starry Eyes
Bjork – Earth Invaders
Magic Arm – Outdoor Games
Low – Violent Past
MIA – Paper Planes
Laura Marling – New Romantic
Richard Hawley – Serious
Akron/Family – Ed is a Portal
Emmy the Great – Gabriel
Battles – Atlas
Scout Niblett – Kiss
Eugene McGuinness – Bold Street
Taken by Trees – Lost and Found
Animal Collective – For Reverend Green
Vampire Weekend – Mansard Roof
The Young Republic – Modern Plays
Basia Bulat – I Was a Daughter
Lightspeed Champion – Galaxy of the Lost
Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit – Tickle Me Pink
Blonde Redhead – 23
Black Lips – Dirty Hands
Crystal Castles vs. Health – Crimewave
Jamie Woon – Wayfaring Stranger (Burial remix)
King Creosote – Admiral
Turbulence – Notorious
Laura Groves – I am Leaving
Let’s Wrestle – I Won’t Lie to You
Feist – Sealion
Glasvegas – Daddy’s Gone

Next year I’m probably better going for a top 100 or something. Urgh.

To bring the seasonal list-fest to an ignominious close, there’s no best films of the year, because being the year of the Baby Growl, I don’t even think I got to the cinema 10 times, never mind selecting a top ten bests. That said, my film of the year was The Lives of Others, a brilliant movie, which marked my last trip to a cinema about 8 months ago. Here's hoping there will be at least some trips in 2008.

Now the opportunity for some further linkage.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas

It's Christmas Eve. I'm at work, but not working as is evident from this post. It's actually a good day to be coming in - quiet commute, and just after 9am was a good time to go to Oxford Street for last-minute Christmas shopping - I've hardly seen it so quiet.

Anyway, I wasn't going to post the usual indie-bands-doing-Christmas songs, but I've come across some this morning as part of my hard work, and I thought I'd sign off with some seasonal cheer. This may be the last post till after the New Year.

Before I do, it's work remarking on the futility of the various campaigns to get non-reality TV endorsed people to Xmas number 1. Despite backing from the mighty Radio 1, Malcolm Middleton's We're All Going to Die didn't even make the top 30, scraping in at number 31. Still, it was the second highest new entry and probably worth it to see the son of Falkirk in the charts at all. Lucky Soul aren't even in the top 100! Like Scotland World Cup campaigns it started with a surge of optmism, then a realisation of just how mighty the opposition is...Nae chance.

Here's a remix of Malcolm's song which came my way last week.

Anyway onto better things. It seems to be the thing to have a Christmas myspace song up for download. One particular goodie is Theoretical Girl's version of O Holy Night, which abandons her usual electropop for something more atmospheric and lovely.

Elsewhere, Pure Groove records have put a little Xmas mixtape up over a couple of myspace sites (side a and b) to post some songs recorded as part of their instore festivities last week. They're all pretty good, and there are currently six up for your downloading pleasure with the promise of more to come (though they better be fast if they're to remain within the sell by date). I've uploaded a version of Little Donkey by east London troubadour Chris TT (who has more festive songs on his own myspace), and a cover of Winter Wonderland by Jay Jay Pistolet, a fine young chap who you'll no doubt be hearing more of on this blog in the new year.

Download: Jay Jay Pistolet - Winter Wonderland

There are more tracks from Noah and the Whale, Lightspeed Champion, Eugene McGuinness and Bans on Toast.

Finally, a Christmas song that doesn't really get the recognition it deserves. Their tune Too Much Wine occasionally makes it into these Xmas song lists, but what about Stupid Bells? A better piece of seasonal misanthropic black humour I've yet to hear. Sample lyric - "Christmas is the season when most folks kill themselves / Christmas is the reason for all those stupid bells". Enjoy.

Download: The Handsome Family - Stupid Bells

That'll do for now. Lunchtime beckons, and I need to sneakily head off to get the presents wrapped and the ham on.

Happy Christmas. Thanks to all who click on this blog regularly. I'll be back in 2008.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My best gigs of 2007

This has been a funny old year for gigs in the world of The Daily Growl. First five months I carried on my regular gig-going habit, albeit with a little more urgency knowing that frequent time spent in London’s live music venues was drawing to a close, all due to the imminent arrival of The Baby Growl. The remaining seven months saw me eagerly taking the few opportunities I had to get out to see some shows. Given the lack of options available, I had to be selective and fairly sure it was going to be a good ‘un. From the months in brackets below, I’m pleased to say that the quality control in the planning was pretty high. Anyway, here’s the list.

1. Joanna Newsom / Alasdair Roberts @ The Barbican (Jan)

One of the first gigs I went to this year, which has never been surpassed, even given the high quality of live entertainment that followed. The opener was excellent, but in my memory he's totally surpassed by Newsom. Her performance of Ys with the London Symphony Orchestra was amazing enough, but it was the other songs, stripped down with her two-strong band that really blew me away and even brought a tear to my eye.

Read my original review.

2. The Boredoms @ Shoreditch Town Hall (Oct)

The Boredoms are one of these bands for whom album releases and live gigs bear little relation. They have a large recorded output for sure, but live they just play, and (it seems) go wherever it takes them. This gig, in the round, was an amazing display of percussive mayhem – three drummers, plus main man Yamantaka Eye orchestrating proceedings, screaming and bashing a wall of guitar necks with a broom. Just astounding.

Read my original review.

Download: The Boredoms – (Star)

3. Akron Family / Phosphorescent @ Cargo (Dec)

A wonderful double bill. The (mostly) quiet beauty of Matthew Houck, followed by the full-on assault of the Akron/Family live show. I can forgive Akron/Family the unnecessary moments of noodling and noise for the free-form delights when they really got going. I’ve not seen a gig go off like this for quite a long time.

Read my original review.

Phosphorescent – Joe Tex, These Taming Blues

4. End of the Road Festival @ Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset (Sept)

Like last year, another fantastic festival from the End of the Road team, even if it was one that I felt slightly less engaged in due to a small baby present and staying off-site. There were so many good performances that I’m including the festival as a whole, even though it’s more than just a gig. However, if I was forced to choose, I’d single out Yo La Tengo’s storming Friday set headline set, my introduction to the live tour de force that is My Brightest Diamond, the Young Republic – particularly their joyous Dylan covers set and my discovery of the festival, maybe even year, David Thomas Broughton.

Read my festival reviews – Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Click back here to download Yo La Tengo’s whole EOTR set.

5. Electrelane/ The Early Years @ The Scala (May)

One of the great disappointments of this year is that we’ll not get to experience gigs by Electrelane any time soon. I missed their London ‘farewell’ gig last month, but at least I have this searing show to remember them by.

Read my original review.

Download: Electrelane – I’m on Fire

6. Arcade Fire/ Electrelane @ Brixton Academy (March)

I know all the fuss was made about the St John’s and Porchester Hall shows. Well, I was at the first St John’s one (yes, the one with Wake Up on the steps outside) but although AF were good, the atmosphere was somewhat lacking. Maybe it was the standing in serried rows. For all my general dislike of Brixton Academy as a venue (yes, the sound was still dodgy) the atmosphere was electric, and the band were on total top form, much more warmed up than they were on that cold January evening in Westminster.

Read my original review.

7. A Hawk and A Hacksaw and the Hun Hangar Ensemble @ Bush Hall (May)

This is a band who make even more sense live than on record, and especially so now Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost have got their Hungarian buddies together as the Hun Hangar Ensemble. Not that their self-titled album of the year was a duffer, it’s just hat live it’s a total riot of folk fury, but with many smiles all round. Heck, even the bagpipes sounded good and who’d have thought that we’d be discussing cimbalom solos afterwards?

Read my original review

Download: A Hawk and A Hacksaw and the Hun Hangar Ensemble – Oriental Hora

8. James Yorkston & The Athletes / Martin Carthy @ The Union Chapel (May)

Beautiful venue and wonderful music from the Scotsman with a fine repertoire of understated folk music and a cracking dry wit.

Read my original review.

Download: James Yorkston – Blue Bleezin' Blind Drunk

9. Emmy the Great / Laura Groves / Noah and the Whale @ Hoxton Bar & Kitchen (Jan)

The start of 2007 showcased three sets of bright young things for whom greater things will surely come in 2008. I’ve long been a fan of Emmy’s fine array of folk-pop tunes, but the other two show certain promise as well.

Read my original review.

Download: Emmy the Great – Gabriel (Radio 1 session)

10. St Vincent / Fireworks Night @ The Slaughtered Lamb (Sept)

I was meant to see a gig featuring both these artists on 5 June, but due to the Baby Growl starting her journey to the outside world a couple of days early, I spent the night in the labour ward of the Royal London Hospital instead of the Luminaire. How inconsiderate. Thankfully I got to see a repeat performance three months later. And how very good both of them were.

Read my original review

Download: St Vincent – These Days

Monday, December 17, 2007

Albums of 2007: numbers 10-1

…and to the top 10. Again, alterations made up to the last minute, but I think I’ve got something I’m happy with. The top two were never in doubt for me – clearly ahead of the rest by some way, so the thing was working out which one came out first. It's done. Here ye go…

10. St Vincent – Marry Me

Annie Clark’s debut album sounds like a labour of love from a woman who’s spent a long time listening to rich sources of influences, resulting in a diverse and wonderful album. There’s skewed guitar riffs interspersed throughout to scare off the Corrine Bailey Rae crowd, do-wop, brooding instrumental storms which smoothe out into something rich and silky, the simple beauty of title track with its strings and restrained soul horns, lush cabaret-pop, light jazzy touches, folksy harp and even a dash of the Nashville Sound. It’s a brilliant record and easily one of the strongest debuts of the year. Maybe even good enough for a few smitten fans to want to take Annie up on the proposition in her album title.

Read more of my review here.

Download: St Vincent – All My Stars Aligned

9. Beirut – The Flying Cup Club

Zach Condon is a talented chap, but how would he follow up The Gulag Orkestar only a year on? It turns out he’s stuck pretty much to the same formula but this is no bad thing. The official word is that The Flying Club Cup is much more Gallic in flavour, inspired by Zach’s sojourns in France, but I can’t really tell. Maybe I’m not acquainted with the intricacies of European folk music, but aside from the Francophone song titles, I’m not feeling the streets and lanes of Paris. But who cares? The music, although being the direct successor of Gulag, is wonderfully charming, romantic and evocative. It’s perhaps less fresh and interesting that its predecessor a year ago, but now we’re more acquainted with Condon’s music, it gives us more space to enjoy its depths.

Download: Beirut – Cherbourg

8. Bodies of Water – Ears Will Pop and Eyes Will Blink

I only heard Bodies of Water few weeks back, so it’s a bit of a late entry into this chart, but they’ve been a bit of a revelation. I’m still a little suspicious because often albums this instantly appealing lose some of their initial sheen over time. But I’m beginning to lose count of the plays I’ve given this debut album already and there’s no sign of fatigue on my part yet. They come on like a cross between Danielson and Tilly and the Wall, having a bit of the former’s eccentricity and intensity but with the latter’s more straightforward pop sensibilities. There’s just something about their all-sing-at-once style, where even the verses seem like choruses that I’m finding impossible to resist. It’s the sort of album that turns a weary winter trudge to work into a playful spring-in-the-step stroll through the rain-splattered streets. Somehow after this anything seems possible. I keep hoping it won’t wear off. It hasn’t yet.

Read more of my review here.

Download: Bodies of Water - Doves Circled the Sky

7. Akron/Family – Love is Simple

Here’s another band I’ve only fairly recently become acquainted with. Although I had always associated Akron/Family with the outer reaches of American ‘freak folk’ (whatever that means), there’s nothing particularly weird or abstract here. Unless you count wild eclecticism as weird, that is. It’s almost exhausting just taking in all the styles and influences that the New York-based band have compressed into the 57 minutes of this album. There’s acoustic folk-pop, 70s rock riffs, four-part harmonising, chanting, tribal grooves, electronic effects and a big down-home singalong. And that’s just the first three tracks! There’s just so much in here, along with a healthy dose of the expected experimentation, that it seems to me that it must be impossible for anyone not to enjoy this aural feast.

Read more of my review here.

Download: Akron/Family – Don't Be Afraid, You're Already Dead

6. The Young Republic – 12 Songs From Winter City

12 Tales from Winter City isn’t a new album as such. It’s more of a collection of tracks from self-released albums and EPs that this Boston band has previously put out in America, so it’s essentially a new album in the UK. Although the band aren’t keen on the Belle and Sebastian comparisons, they’re going to continue to be made, especially since the Glasgow group are the best-known purveyors of this kind of high quality indie-pop. The main difference is that The Young Republic are more obviously American, with more than a little country influence. They’ve also clearly got a big love for The Beatles and no doubt that’s where the strong pop sensibility comes from. In other places where the strings really get going there’s even a reminiscence of Arcade Fire. Plenty to enjoy all round then.

Read more of my review here.

Download: The Young Republic – Goodbye Town

5. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

The first three months of this year seemed to belong to Win Butler and co, what with their now-legendary St John’s and Porchester Hall gigs, the much-anticipated release of their second album proper (which introduced me, and no doubt many others, to the word ‘lenticular’) and their triumphant return to play much bigger shows in March. They covered acres of press, and I listened to and loved the album loads, then I sort of left it for most of the rest of the year. I certainly wasn’t interested in the vast enormodome gigs last month. Earlier drafts of my top 20 featured Neon Bible much further down, but a couple of recent listens just served to confirm what a great record it is, and what a great band Arcade Fire are. They’re pretty unique (maybe along with only The White Stripes) as an arena-filling band who continue to make interesting and essential music.

Download: Arcade Fire – My Body is a Cage

4. The National – Boxer

It took me a while to warm to the National’s previous album Alligator and it was seeing them live that made all the difference for me. Two years on and the follow-up Boxer didn’t take me nearly so long, probably because there’s an immediacy it, as well as a warmth and general memorableness which makes it feel like an old friend before it really should. These qualities also mean that it’s got a lasting and immensely pleasurable aftertaste that lingers well after the final notes of Gospel have faded. Whilst this is an album that I’ve loved a lot through 2007, it’s not one that I’ve found easy to describe. There’s nothing fancy, not much in the way of innovations, or even an intriguing back story – it’s just good old fashioned straightforward decent songwriting, by a band who seem to have a real sense of integrity. And though that may sound like damning by faint praise, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Download: The National – Guest Room

3. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

Here’s another band that went more ‘pop’ this year. This might have been a move that didn’t go down so well with their hardcore fans, but won plenty plaudits round my way. However, like Deerhoof before, going pop in the Animal Collective world is still many light years from FM radio-world. The critics might have raved about AC member Panda Bear’s solo effort, to the extent of pushing his band’s recording out of the limelight. But Although Person Pitch was an album to admire, it was Strawberry Jam that really made me happy. It’s just such a euphoric album – right from the squelchy, bouncy start of Peacebone through to the burblings and harmonies of Derek, it’s such an unmitigated pleasure that I’ve hardly stopped playing it since it came out.

Download: Animal Collective - Fireworks

2. Electrelane – No Shouts, No Calls

The end of the year brought the news that Electrelane were going on ‘indefinite hiatus’. I’m not totally sure what that means (and they might not either) but one thing that’s fairly sure is that there will be no more gigs and no new recordings for the foreseeable future. What a shame. But at least we’ve got No Shouts, No Calls, the fourth and possibly final album which really is the pinnacle of their achievements so far. As before, Electrelane are equally at home on instrumentals as they are with vocals. They’re also pretty hot at these wordless vocal ah-ah type tunes too. The harmonies are right on the button, the lyrics are interesting and emotive and there’s some of the best use of keyboards /piano/ organ that I’ve heard on a recent rock record. A couple of days ago, I was asked to describe this album for a Blog Fresh Radio end-of-year thing, and I hurriedly and rather ineloquently said something like “It’s just a really good record with really great songs”. That’s not the sort of sentence that’s going to win any writing awards, but it does go some way to describe what really is a wonderful album.

Download: Electrelane – At Sea

1. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

This album is topping charts all over the internet right now, so maybe no surprises about its position here. But it really is my album of the year. In the end, I couldn’t have it any other way. Between this amazing record, the proper release of the majestic 45:33 and his superb Fabric Live mix CD (with Pat Mahoney) James Murphy totally owned 2007. Honestly, this scruffy, slightly podgy bloke heading towards middle age is so far ahead of the young skinny good-looking guys with post-punk guitars that it’s not even fair to talk about competition. In an age of individual tracks and shuffling, here’s an album that totally makes sense as an organic whole – from beginning to end in the right order. In one piece. With only nine tracks, Murphy can’t be accused of cramming too much in. Well, he can, but the cramming in is all about putting the effort into the quality of the tracks. If more bands had this level of quality control, the world would be a far better place.

Download: LCD Soundsystem – Get Innocuous!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Albums of 2007: numbers 11-20

So here it is. A bit of poking an tweaking and we have the beginnings of this year's best albums list. These are the records that have been most played and most enjoyed by me this year, all arranged in an order that was changing right up to the last minute. I've largely cribbed from the original reviews where they exist, so you may want to click back for a bit more info and if you're lucky, some more mp3s.

20. Elvis Perkins – Ash Wednesday

Back in May I said that this record felt substantial, and I still stand by this. Though it may be short on thrills and immediacy, its appeal lies in the more subtle areas. It doesn’t have much in the way of singalongs (except maybe May Day!) or even catchy tunes. But that’s not what makes it great. The greatness is to be found in the less obvious parts. A chord change here. A slight vocal inflection there. Then some well-employed strings and maybe a little touch of harmonica. It’s not even something that it’s easy to put your finger on, but once you’ve listened to his debut album Ash Wednesday a few times, you’ll know what I mean. It just feels, well, substantial. And soulful, heartfelt and brimming with thought-provoking lyrics. And often, like on Moon Woman II and Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky, just beautiful.

Read more of my review here.

Download: Elvis Perkins - Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky

19. Panda Bear – Person Pitch

It was a good year for Noah Lennox. Not content with playing his part in the brilliant new Animal Collective album and (reputedly) great live shows, he struck out on his own to make his own impressive record. Not a million miles away from his other band, his solo work showed more love for the more out-there elements of The Beach Boys. Studio trickery there may be in heaps, but it’s still a warm and engaging album, with a dash of pop sensibility for every piece of interesting experimentation.

Download: Panda Bear – Comfy In Nautica

18: MIA – Kala

On the opening track on Kala, MIA declares that “MIA is coming back with power”. This is not an idle boast. There’s just so much going on here, as you might expect from an album that was recorded in five different countries. Playground chants, pulsing basslines, Bollywood-style strings, Brazilian beats and hip-hop grooves. And that’s just the start. It’s synths without skinny jeans, R ‘n’ B without the empty bling and world music without the worthiness. The cynic may suggest that MIA just checks too many 'multicultural boxes' to be really genuine. But I say nah. In any case, I don’t care. Kala too good to worry about what demographic it’s targeted at.

Read the rest of my review here.

Download: MIA – Jimmy

17. Super Furry Animals – Hey Venus!

This album probably isn’t featuring in too many end-of-year lists, probably because they’re one of these bands who have been around for ages and they’re just not that hot any more. But they’re still good. I’ve got a vested interest because I’m a huge fan, and I like all their albums. Some of course are better than others, and it remains to be seen where Hey Venus! will sit within the SFA canon of greatness, but the signs look good. It seems to be a more stripped down affair than the previous albums, with less emphasis on electronic trickery and more on just the pure, simple great songs that always lie at the Furry heart of things. Simple, effective and total pop from the increasingly hirsute SFA – what more do you want?

Read more of my review here.

Download: Super Furry Animals – Neo Consumer

16. Amiina – Kurr

Though Amiina are Sigur Ros’ string section, they are not just Sigur Ros minus the waves of electric guitar and made-up language. They don’t have the epic sound that they contribute to on larger stages. Instead it’s lush yet understated. Strings sweep, but are subtly done. There’s nothing overbearing. It’s not just a string quartet either. Listen to a perfectly played glockenspiel, celesta, harmonium, harp and even musical saw. And though are no vocals, there is some gorgeous wordless harmonising on Hilli and Kolapot. Because of the quasi-classic nature of this music, it would be too easy just to have this on as background music while you do something else. But resist the temptation. Take time. Listen. Revel in the simple beauty of it all. Believe me, it’ll have you hooked.

Read more of my review here.

Download: Amiina – Sogg

15. Battles – Mirrored

The bloggers’ darlings of 2007, this is an album which is topping charts all over the place right now. Although there’s plenty in Mirrored to admire, it’s an album that’s less easy to love, so that’s why it’s not higher up my charts. It’s still a pretty exciting ride though. The singles Atlas and Tonto are still thrilling and elsewhere there’s a general sense of unpredictability which is very pleasing. It feels a bit improv, but all the time you really know that this is a band totally in control of what they’re doing.

Download: Battles – Race:In

14. Devendra Banhart – Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

Like its predecessor Cripple Crow, Smokey... is another long album (16 tracks, clocking in at over 71 minutes), but also like the former LP it never seems too long, never outstays its welcome. That’s largely down to Banhart’s wilful eclecticism and seeming determination not to keep flogging the same dead horse. For someone who’s risen to prominence as a (freak?) folk artist, this album is more of a trip through the 70s, with plenty riffs that belong firmly in that decade, as well as some slick gospel, hippy rock, oddball latin-flecked Spanish language numbers, Jewish doo-wop (really) as well as the expected folky stylings. To some this may seem contrived, but I don’t think he’s trying too hard. There’s too much love for music going on here for that.

Read the rest of my review here.

Download: Devendra Banhart – Cristobal

13. Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity

More pop, this time from a less expected source. Friend Opportunity (with sleeve art by man-about-indie David Shrigley) is probably Deerhoof’s most commercial album to date, which is probably why I like it. But ‘commercial’ in the Deerhoof sense isn’t exactly chart appeal. They take the standard ingredients of a rock band, skew them far enough to always remain interesting and engaging but never far enough away to seem too arty and alienating. I guess it stands or falls on Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals. If you like them, the rest should follow naturally. I love it.

Download: Deerhoof – The Perfect Me

12. Radiohead – In Rainbows

So much has been written about how Radiohead chose to distribute this album that it seems like it’s only now that people are beginning to write about the actual music. I’m so tired with hearing about how In Rainbows has changed the music industry. Only time will tell if it has. For now, it’s a fine record. Maybe even their finest in a while, but it’s not up the top of my list, mainly because I haven’t spent that much time with it. I know that it’s an album that’s easier to admire than love, but like Joanna Newsom last year, time spent with this record will no doubt bring a lot of pleasure. Who knows, maybe even the imminent arrival of my discbox will change things.

Download: Radiohead – Nude

11. Phosphorescent – Pride

Pride is another work of understated loveliness from Matthew Houck, showing again his ability to create warm, glowing pieces of hymn-like beauty, where his own cracked vocals are surrounded by a wheezing harmonica and the sound of a celestial harmonising choir. The further into winter we get, the more appropriate this album seems. It's not just good, it's also wonderfully evocative. It takes me to a crackling fire, low atmospheric lighting, a warm alcoholic haze that accompanies a happy, but reflective evening. Not many of these things are available to me at the moment in our central London flat where a small baby takes up most of our waking time and energies, but I can listen and dream.

Read the rest of my review here.

Download: Phosphorescent – A Picture of our Torn-Up Praise

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lists, Lists, Lists

I missed a train to Liverpool last week, so I had an hour to kick around Euston station till the next one. I killed some time in WH Smiths in the unusual activity of reading music mags, but what an uninspiring lot the end of year lists were. Q was surely the worst – a more boring and predictable list will surely not be found anywhere outside the NME. Elsewhere, others are getting in on the act. Last week we had Drowned in Sound’s rundowns (decent, with a few surprises) and over the weekend we’ve had The Guardian and the Observer’s (also decent, but with less surprises). Today we had the ever-interesting Rough Trade top 100 list revealed, which always deviates substantially from the rest, and this year is no exception.

I’m obviously going to pitch in with mine over the next couple of days running from 20 down to 1. I’m still putting the finishing touches to it, but I’ll be ready to unleash the first part today, hopefully. Then it’ll be the top 10 gigs of the year and top 30 songs of the year early next week. After that’s done, I’ll attempt a more text-based review of the year and round up some of the great albums that just missed out on my top lot. I love this time of year!

Before I do all this though, a quick look back to last year’s list. As always, what a difference a year makes. The end of year list is always reflective of where you’re at in a particular time and place, and looking back, there are always records that you wonder why were there. Here’s my retrospective 2006 list, based on what I’ve listened to most and continued to enjoy in 2007. Most are still there actually, but there are a couple of new entries, one of which wasn’t even in the top 20. As I expected, the Joanna Newsom album was a grower.

1. Danielson – Ships
2. Joanna Newsom – Ys
3. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country
4. Absentee – Schmotime
5. James Yorkston – Year of the Leopard
6. Beirut – Gulag Orkestar
7. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
8. Jeremy Warmsley – The Art of Fiction
9. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat
10. TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Tomorrow, we’re back to the present. Until then, the really committed list-spotters should look no further than Largehearted Boy's annual meta-list.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Akron/Family & Phosphorescent @ Cargo, 2 December 2007

“This is your last fucking chance!” shouted Akron/Family’s Miles Seaton near the end of their encore. “We’re going home after this, so this is your last chance to go mad”. Even though his tone had a threatening edge, he really didn’t need to persuade us. All it needed was the drums to kick in again and we were off, going mad. This was at least half an hour past the curfew as well.

But before I relive the madness of Akron/Family further, let me backtrack a little, to something a bit less chaotic. Part of the appeal of this gig for me was the promise of the support act, Phosphorescent, given that I’ve grown to love his recent album Pride and this was the only chance to see Matthew Houck onstage in London anytime soon. He didn’t disappoint. Taking to a darkened stage without his fairy light-bedecked jacked he’s known to wear, he went straight into a cover of The Party’s Over, assisted by loops and shouting. A class start for sure. Apart from a fuzzed up version of At Death, a Proclamation, most of his set was a stripped down version of the tracks from Pride and his previous albums. Where the appeal in the recorded Phosphorescent lies in the beauty of the layered sounds, live and solo the production is stripped away to reveal the beautiful unencumbered core of the songs. Then the loops came back to glorious effect in his closing number Cocaine Lights, where he perfected the trick of harmonising with himself, and going some way to recreating the celestial choir present on Pride, only this time with added noisy wig-out ending. Superb. Could it get any better?

The answer was yes – but in a bit of a different way. The reverential silence that accompanied Houck’s fragile interpretation of his songs wasn’t really necessary for most of Akron/Family’s set. Mind you, it wasn’t all great and I did have my reservations. About halfway through their set, after the less-than-welcome guitar solos and extended white noise sequence, I thought they were going to clear the room. Then the noise stopped, they went straight into the quiet beauty of Crickets and from then on to the extended end sequence it was a non-stop rollercoaster of wonderfulness.

Akron/Family don’t play straight sets. You don’t go to one of their shows expecting to hear note-perfect renditions of songs from their records. Their thing is a lot more improv. Sure, there are renditions of their recorded work, but often it’s more of an extended jam where they play stuff and elements of their songs appear. It’s a tantalising recipe where you’re not quite sure what’s going to come next. From a band that some have wrongly labelled as hippies, you don’t expect the vaguely threatening calls for participation, the noise work-outs and the percussive mayhem, stage-diving and beat-boxing that accompanied their colossal set-closing version of Ed is a Portal. That track sounds great on their latest album Love is Simple, but live it’s in another dimension. The crowd were well warmed up by this stage and as the song progressed, the madness increased. I haven’t seen a gig go off like this for a long time, and that’s particularly impressive considering that it wasn’t exactly populated by The Kids either. Although the curfew was long passed, nothing could stop the clamour for the encore, and it all went off again. What a show. What a band. Why have I only recently come across these guys? And the most important question – when are they back in London?

Download: Akron/Family – Crickets
Download: Akron/Family – Gone Beyond

Love is Simple and their Young God back catalogue is all available to buy from emusic. As is Phosphorescent's Pride and other albums.

Monday, December 10, 2007

It's Christmas! Time to spend your money!

Christmas is a-coming and bloggers are stacking up on the festive-related songs. But, rather than posting a load of random Christmas songs by Various Artists, I’m going to encourage you to buy stuff. Yes – actually part with hard cash. There are not free downloadable Xmas tunes here. However, buy buying these songs, you’ll not only be doing the artists a favour, you’ll potentially be doing this whole country a favour.

I’m sure it’s not just the UK that suffers from the yearly problem of novelty and festive muck clogging up the charts at this time of year. There are always other alternatives of course, but this year, with our new rules that allow downloads, there may be a serious chance to get some more Daily Growl-friendly songs in there. So here’s the contenders

First up, Scottish miserablist Malcolm Middleton, playing up to type though no doubt with tongue firmly planted in cheek. When his song We’re All Going to Die was first touted, bookmakers William Hill gave it the longest odds ever for reaching the top spot – 1000/1. But the latest news is that the odds have shortened so much that Malky is now fourth favourite to be a chart-topper at 12/1! Just imagine he could get there. Imagine Top of the Pops or whatever chart show’s on playing a song with the chorus “You’re all going to die alone” on Christmas day. Just imagine. He explains the connection between the song and the season like this: “Dying is a bit like writing a letter to Santa. Unless you've been a good boy or girl, you're fucked.”

There’s a site where you can hear the song (it’s pretty good actually). It’s out today to download and a limited 7 inch (with David Shrigley artwork) comes out next Monday, though if you want to take part in (what he calls) the battle of good (himself) vs. evil (the X Factor winner), you may wish to wait till next week to part with your virtual cash. He’s got ‘celebrity backing too – Colin Murray’s on board, resulting in this wee flyer.

Not appearing anywhere on the betting list at the moment is pop-soul outfit Lucky Soul, though that might change soon because are throwing their weight behind the Greenwich band to head to the top of the hit parade. This is a very good thing, and they’ve got a page dedicated to the campaign where this natty flyer is taken from.

lucky soul for christmas no 1

It’s a digital re-release for their Lips Are Unhappy Single, backed with their cover of festive favourite Lonely This Christmas, just to keep it topical. It’s out next Monday too, but you can pre-order it now for the princely sum of 40p. Yes – a whole forty pence. That’s hardly going to break the band is it? And surely it’s worth it to see the smile wiped off Simon Cowell’s face, unlikely though that may seem. What’s more, it’s all for charidee (War Child).

Other seasonal treats include Asobi Seksu’s cover of the Ramones’ classic Merry Christmas (I don't want to fight tonight), surprisingly at 66/1 for the number one spot. It has no chance obviously, but may still be worth a sneaky purchase. It’s not a Christmas single as such, but with a title like We Dress Up Like Snowmen, The Wave Pictures’ current single fits into the seasonal style of things. It’s out now on seven inch with the equally good Now You Are Pregnant on the b-side. They’re a band well worthy of your support.

Finally, and nothing to do with Christmas, Yule or anything faintly December is the new single Hilli by Amiina. It does however have something of an ‘endings’ theme because it featured spoken word vocals by the late great Lee Hazelwood, apparently the last he ever recorded before his death earlier in the year. In my opinion, the vocals, iconic though they may be, overshadow the fragile beauty of the original version which is possibly the stand-out track on a gorgeous album. But all said, it’s still worth what’s left of your Xmas single money.

If you have any money left though, go to the bookies and put a bet on Malcolm Middleton and Lucky Soul. It would be amusing to see the odds shorten even further…

Since I’m encouraging you to buy, I’m obviously not putting any of these tracks up for download, but here are other tracks by some of the above artists to whet your appetite.

Download: Lucky Soul – My Brittle Heart
Download: Malcolm Middleton – Stay Close at Night
Download: The Wave Pictures – The River Bends

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rob St. John

Here’s something rather good that came my way the other day and shows me again that it’s often worth following up these emails that constantly pop into my inbox. Obviously people can tell what I like by looking at what I post about here (that doesn’t include the folks who sent me Celine Dion CDs obviously), but this guy has nailed it very nicely indeed. It was the mention of Fence Records and Amiina in the email that perked my curiosity.

Rob St John is originally from Lancashire but now resides in Edinburgh. His is a particularly lovely folk music, backed up by cello, harmonium and even the saw. There definitely aren’t enough saws in music today. Between Rob and Amiina, that’s two saw instrumentation-related posts in the past couple of weeks. Good going.

He claims to be “influenced by the music and lyricism of Vashti Bunyan, Joanna Newsom, Bert Jansch and Bill Callahan, the imagery and black humour of Dylan Thomas and Ivor Cutler, and a general desire to see the magic in life’s minutiae.” This may be true, but I’m hearing a lot of echoes of Daily Growl faves and Fence Collective artistes James Yorkston and Adrian Crowley, and little bits of other Scots folkie Alasdair Roberts.

Speaking of collectives, Rob’s also a member of the Fife Kills: collective, a label and erm, collective of musicians in and around Edinburgh and Fife who seem to pursue a nice line in folky stuff. A rival to Fence perhaps? Probably not, there’s surely infinite capacity in the Kingdom for bands of acoustic minstrels.

Anyway, it’s all good stuff. Rob’s new EP Tipping In comes out on 10 December and should be available as 100 strictly limited and numbered copies, through Fife Kills: records. It will be available at some independent record shops: Elvis Shakespeare and Avalanche (Edinburgh), Monorail (Glasgow), Townsend (Clitheroe) and Rough Trade (London). Here are a couple of tracks

Download: Rob St John – Tipping In
Download: Rob St John – A Wooden Rose

You can see Rob playing at the aforementioned Elvis Shakespeare shop on Leith Walk, Edinburgh on 14 December and some other dates on his myspace.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Bodies of Water

It happens every year. You’re compiling your top albums of the year (I did this even before I was a blogger, I’m that sad) and then one comes along which throws your entire list into question. Sometimes it’s a hazard of release schedules, but mostly it’s just something I haven’t picked up on before. This year it’s Bodies of Water.

A friend gave me the nod about this LA band a couple of weeks back, and they’ve been a bit of a revelation. I’m still a little suspicious because I often find that albums this instantly appealing lose some of the initial sheen over time, but I’m beginning to lose count of the plays I’ve given their debut album already and there’s no sign of fatigue on my part yet.

In short, Bodies of Water started with married couple David Metcalf and Meredith Arthur who invited their friends Kyle Gladden and Jessie Conklin to join them in the happy band. I say ‘happy’ because Ears Will Pop and Eyes Will Blink is the most joyous record I’ve heard all year. They come on like a cross between Danielson and Tilly and the Wall, having a bit of the former’s eccentricity and intensity but with the latter’s more straightforward pop sensibilities. There’s just something about their all-sing-at-once style, where even the verses seem like choruses that I’m finding impossible to resist. It’s the sort of album that turns a weary winter trudge to work into a playful spring-in-the-step stroll through the rain-splattered streets. Somehow after this everything seems possible. I keep hoping it won’t wear off. It hasn’t yet.

And the end of year list? It’s a shoo-in.

Download: Bodies of Water – It is Familiar
Download: Bodies of Water – Our Friend Appear Like the Dawn

Ears Will Pop… is out now on the band’s Thousand Tongues label, though they’ve recently been signed by Secretly Canadian, so it should be in all those good record stores at the end of January. In the meantime you can buy it directly from BoW or from emusic.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Singles going steady 14: Belle & Sebastian special!

I’ve been putting this post off a bit, because I thought that it could easily develop into something quite unwieldy (it has, actually), but if I’m going to stick to my alphabetical progression through my CD singles, I can’t miss Belle & Sebastian. Not just because their singles take up a whole shelf on my rack, but also because of their importance to me. And also because, in my rack full of what is a fairly disposable format, there are few other CD singles that are so worthwhile, so essential for me to hold onto.

That’s not just because they’re mostly special one-off EPs that aren’t merely promotional tools for albums, it’s because they’re so choc-full of brilliant songs. Let’s start at the beginning then…

The winter of 1996-97 wasn’t a particularly easy time for me, for reasons that I don’t need to go into here, but one of the things that kept me going though the long dark nights was Mark Radcliffe’s late-night show on Radio 1. It was classic stuff and I still remember the evening in December when he broadcast a session by this new band from Glasgow that I had never heard before. There was something familiar about the name though, and then I remembered the record sleeve I had seen in the window of Missing Records on Great Western Road earlier that year – it had stuck in my mind because it was a picture of a girl who looked like she was breastfeeding a tiger. If only I had bought it, I’d be in the possession of something very eBay-friendly.

Anyway, the Belle and Sebastian website now tells me that the tracks aired that memorable evening were I Could Be Dreaming, Seeing Other People, We Rule the School and This is Just a Modern Rock Song. It made such an impression on me that the release of the Dog on Wheels EP in spring ‘97 was a big event for me. I had also eyed up the few copies of If You’re Feeling Sinister on sale in Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus but couldn’t afford it at the time. Dog on Wheels was more affordable and had me totally captivated. Here was a band which ticked all the right indie boxes for me. Dog on Wheels was quickly followed up by Lazy Line Painter Jane, an EP which I thought was probably the pinnacle of their achievements so far – not just the brilliant title track which is still one of their best moments, but also the other songs which aren’t too shabby either. The year’s triumvirate of EPs released by Jeepster Records was completed with the oddly-titled 3..6..9 Seconds of Light, another fine piece of work. By this time the long winter of discontent was long behind me, but there was something in the music, apart from the obvious quality of the songwriting, that had so many echoes of the Glasgow I missed, especially since I was far from what was familiar. Even now when I listen to tracks like A Century of Elvis (a sort of ‘version’ of the later track A Century of Fakers, making it the closest B&S have ever gotten to reggae) it takes me back, in a sort of misty-eyed way to my mid-90s days in the West End of Glasgow. Aaaahhh…

But I digress. By this time I could afford Sinister, and could appreciate it for the classic it was (and still is), so much that the release of the still-excellent Boy with the Arab Strap in autumn ’98 felt like a wee bit of a disappointment by comparison. It was also around this time (the day of release of Arab Strap to be precise) that I got to see the band for the first time at a gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire where the sheer levels of enthusiasm of everyone there managed to turn what was probably a slightly under-par performance into a memory of a legendary show. In these days, live shows by the band were pretty rare, so we had to be happy with what we had. Later that year, the seasonal rush for Christmas number one was joined by the This is Not a Modern Rock Song EP, which was never going to be a hit, not with a seven-minute long title track nor the three others, which broke the current chart rules for inclusion anyway. This EP was business as usual for Stuart Murdoch and the gang, and though it now seems like one of their more minor works, the track Slow Graffitti was voted best B&S song shortly afterwards by the same campaigning group of fans circulating around the band’s website who propelled them to the Best Newcomer award at the 1999 BRIT awards, thus incurring the wrath of the Steps-managing Pete Waterman.

There were no more singles until 2000, the same year as fourth album Fold Your Hand Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. Legal Man, which typically wasn’t on the album, also gave them their highest chart placing (number 15) and a debut appearance of Top of the Pops. See that performance in all its glory below – it’s nice to see that they’re clearly not really trying very hard to mime their singing and instrument playing, and there’s also the amusing stage invasion by what looks like a hairy superhero.

The next year saw two more singles, their last for Jeepster. Jonathan David (still a big personal favourite) and I’m Waking Up to Us, which some thought was Murdoch’s take on his break-up with Isobel Campbell (though he denied this in the sleeve notes to The Life Pursuit). Campbell left the band a year later to pursue her own solo stuff.

The next single saw a big change in the world of Belle & Sebastian. They left Jeepster in 2002, signing a deal with Rough Trade Records which saw the end of their one-off singles. All their single releases since have been tracks from albums, and thus their entry into conventional single releases commenced. However, all was not lost. Unlike many, even most singles, these didn’t feel like mere throwaway promos for the album – they’ve maintained a commitment to stuffing them full of quality extra tunes, in many cases better than some of the album tracks.

For the first release on Rough Trade, the cheeky Step Into My Office Baby, we had the sweet Desperation Made a Fool of Me. I’m a Cuckoo featured a rare remix from the Avalanches and the glorious two-parter Stop Look and Listen, which follows the Simon and Garfunkel-like first part of the song with the instrumental burst of Shadows-style surf guitar which they used to open their gigs in support of Dear Catastrophe Waitress in late 2003. And when they released Wrapped Up in Books, it was styled as the Books EP, with literary themed tracks, including the excellent Your Cover’s Blown.

Last year’s The Life Pursuit was in my mind one of B&S’s weaker efforts, but that didn’t stop there being good b-sides. My final Belle and Sebastian CD single is the first release from that album, Funny Little Frog, which shows that I was buying CD singles as recently as January 2006. It must have been around this time that I moved decisively to 7 inch and downloads for my singles purchases, so I have no more tracks from singles off that album. Well, I do, but they’re not CD singles, and that’s the whole point of this ongoing feature. So I’ll end this little personal journey through the career of Belle and Sebastian, with some tracks from the various EPs and singles. Enjoy these. I certainly have as I’ve been writing this.

From Dog on Wheels (1997)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – String Bean Jean

From Lazy Line Painter Jane (1997)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – A Century of Elvis

From 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light (1997)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Beautiful

From This Is Just a Modern Rock Song (1998)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Slow Graffiti

From Legal Man (2000)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Legal Man

From Jonathan David (2001)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Jonathan David

From I'm Waking Up to Us (2001)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – I’m Waking Up To Us

From Step into My Office, Baby (2003)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Desperation Made a Fool of Me

From I'm a Cuckoo (2004)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Stop, Look and Listen

From the Books EP (2004)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Your Cover’s Blown

From Funny Little Frog (2006)

Download: Belle & Sebastian – Meat and Potatoes

Buy loads and loads of B&S tunes from emusic. They’re all there.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fighting talk

There are so many bands out there. So many guitar-toting kids competing for your attention, and so many PRs and record companies pushing stuff your way in the hope this or that bunch of young bucks will be the next big thing, or at least develop some sort of cult appeal. So to help with the selection process today, here are a few questions to ask:

· Does the band have a great name? Possibly named after a David Shrigley book?
· Do they have a theme song?
· Do they, more specifically, have a theme song with a chorus that goes “Let’s Wrestle, Let’s Fucking Wrestle”?
· Do they have an appealingly ramshackle sound that clatters along with little concern for grace and finesse, but with more of a desire for messed-up rock ‘n’ roll?
· Do they have a song called I Wish I Was in Husker Du, that actually starts with the line “I wish I was in Part Chimp”
· Do they take pride in being “the most miserable and hateful band in London”?

If the answer to more than one of the above is ‘no’, then the band in question is clearly not Let’s Wrestle, and right this minute is not worthy of your attention. After you finish reading this, you should really go to their myspace and listen to four songs, one of which is their new single I Won’t Lie To You, which coming at this time of the year is a blessed rough-edged relief to the growing mass of smooth festive pap that surrounds us. In an ideal world it would be Christmas number one.

Download: Let’s Wrestle – I Wish I Was in Husker Du

Buy I Won’t Lie To You and wish the miserable bastards a happy Xmas.